What are the Somerset Levels?

As further flooding on the Somerset Levels sparks more evacuations, questions are being asked about why the area is so badly affected.

Just what makes the region so prone to being submerged by flood water? And who has been affected by the current crisis?

Montage of flooded Somerset
line break
What are the Somerset Levels?

The Somerset Levels and Moors is a unique flat landscape that extends for about 170,000 acres (70,000 ha) across parts of the north and centre of the county of Somerset in the West of England.

It reaches from Clevedon near Bristol in the north to Ilchester in the south. Bridgwater Bay and the tidal Bristol Channel beyond form its western boundary.

Thousands of years ago the area was covered by the sea, but today it's a landscape of rivers and wetlands - artificially drained, irrigated and modified to allow productive farming.

Farming montage
line break
Has anyone ever tried to tame them?

In Roman times artificial flood defences were built to keep out the tides from the nearby Severn Estuary, and ditches were dug. This created a network of inland channels to drain large areas of floodplain marsh.

During the Middle Ages the monasteries at Glastonbury, Athelney and Muchelney drained and looked after the land.

Dutch engineers arrived to drain the Levels in the 17th Century. Farmers have managed the landscape ever since.

A rainbow over flood water which covers part of the Somerset Levels
line break
Why do they seem to flood so much?

It's one of lowest and flattest areas in the country with much of it below high water level on spring tides, and a maximum altitude of only 25ft (8m) above sea level.

The wetland is supplied by the rivers Axe, Sheppey and Brue in the north, while to the south, the rivers are the Cary, Yeo, Tone and Parrett. It is these rivers which are at the centre of claims by farmers who say a lack of dredging has caused flooding.

Phil Smithen at flooded house in Moorland
line break
Is the area not just a flood plain anyway?

Well, it's not unusual for the area to flood. The latest widespread flooding of the Levels is just one in a long record of flood events.

Records show more than a third of the area (70,000 acres or 28,000 ha) was submerged in 1919. In the 2014 flood, it is estimated about 6,500 ha (16,000 acres), or about 10% of the Levels, are under water.

The sun sets over flooded fields surrounding the River Tone on the Somerset Levels.
line break
Wasn't there a tsunami there once?

Yes, according to some scientists. About 400 years ago. A tsunami, described as "huge and mighty hills of water" advancing at a speed "faster than a greyhound can run" is thought to have swept down the Bristol Channel in 1607, with the water reaching 14 miles inland and 200 square miles (520 sq km) of land eventually submerged.

Flood water is seen pumped into the river at the pumping station near Fordgate on the Somerset Levels.
line break
How many homes have actually flooded?

Somerset County Council says about 150 properties, in the villages of North Moor, Salt Moor, Fordgate and Moorland, are affected by the current crisis. The Environment Agency says up to 40 homes have actually flooded.

Flooded property in the village of Moorland, Somerset.
line break
Lots of farmers work on the Levels - how will it affect them?

It's too early to say. Farmers have seen as much as 95% of their land covered in water, sometimes up to 10ft (3m) deep.

Some have resorted to moving their animals from flood-hit fields and buildings to safer ground.

The National Farmers Union says the area is mainly used for livestock and is not a particular hotbed for growing crops. When the waters eventually recede we should get a better idea of how the land has been affected.

Map of flooding in Somerset

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

BBC Somerset

Weather

Taunton

Min. Night 12 °C

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • FrogsBright...but deadly

    The vivid skin of the Amazon's golden poison arrow frog contains toxins strong enough to kill a human

Programmes

  • Islamic StateClick Watch

    Can the location of Islamic State militants be found with open source data?

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.